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What Happens to Bitcoin if the Internet Goes Down?

Posted 11/22/21 by Rigel Walshe

Human beings grow up around tangible things.  So it’s normal to find it strange to store your wealth in something you can’t see or touch. It’s also normal to be concerned that since you can’t touch bitcoin or see it, then maybe it can somehow be blocked or that it might just disap­pear altogether. Does Bitcoin live on the internet, and if the internet goes down, then does it just disappear?

The Internet Itself Was Designed to Not Go Down (even in the event of nuclear war.)

To start we should define what the “internet going down” actually means.  Like Bitcoin, the Internet was designed for maximum surviv­ability. It has no center. Any computer in the world running the Internet’s proto­cols, which are themselves open source software that can connect to any other computer doing the same thing is ‘on the Internet’.  It may not have access to every other computer on the Internet, but it really isn’t possible for the whole Internet to go down unless no computer in the world is running at all.

So when we talk about ‘the Internet going down’ we usually refer to something quite a bit different.  Broadly speaking, the spectrum of scenarios include:

  • Local Outages: a power cut or other technical problem causing electricity, data trans­mis­sion or another critical service to go offline in a certain area until techni­cians can fix the problem; 
  • Censor­ship: internet censor­ship where a company or govern­ment blocks selected parts of the internet but allows others to continue as normal; or 
  • Total Collapse: some sort of unfore­see­able techno­log­ical problem that causes every single device in the world to go offline for an extended period of time. 

Local Outages

Local outages of Internet service happen all the time. You’ve probably had your Internet connec­tion ‘down’ for some time at some time in the past year.  Or you may have experi­enced an outage of some service who themselves suffered some kind of tempo­rary outage, like when all of Facebook’s services went down for over six hours on October 4th, 2021. If an outage like this was widespread in your area, you might be very annoyed and your access to all kinds of services might be disrupted, including access to your bank web site, the Visa payments network, and more. This is, as you’ve come to know, temporary. 

If you are experi­encing a local outage, your ability to spend your bitcoins might be delayed until you can access the Internet again to transmit trans­ac­tions to the network. However, since Bitcoin is decen­tral­ized and runs all over the world, neither your ability to receive or store bitcoin is impaired at all. Your stored Bitcoins remain stored and secure. And if you are signed up for regular recur­ring purchases to be sent to addresses you control even if you do not have access to the Internet your addresses will continue to receive the bitcoin you’re purchasing which will then be avail­able to you to spend when you regain access to the Internet.

In this sense, Bitcoin is more robust than Visa or your bank in fact. 

Assess­ment: In the event of a local outage, you will be unable to spend your Bitcoin during the duration of a tempo­rary local outage until you regain access to the Internet, but your funds are safe and you will still be able to receive bitcoin even without access!

Censorship

It is very hard, to the point of practi­cally impos­sible to censor or shut down Bitcoin. Bitcoin was designed to be “Censor­ship-resis­tant”. 

The only things that are trans­mitted across the bitcoin network are plain strings of text that comprise its trans­ac­tions and its blocks.  Govern­ments in various parts of the world have attempted to shut down Bitcoin locally, but none have succeeded.  A text message can, after all, be hidden by encryp­tion, concealed in a photo­graph, spoken aloud, turned into a stream of ones and zeros, and count­less other methods of concealment. 

Individual bitcoin trans­ac­tions are just a few hundred bytes of infor­ma­tion and a whole Bitcoin block is smaller than the size of a photo taken on a smart­phone. Being small and hard to identify (or easy to conceal) makes censoring Bitcoin a hopeless task even for govern­ments with consid­er­able resources to attempt this. 

Also, as soon as one steps outside the juris­dic­tion of any censor, they will be able to transact freely, with none of their savings having been affected by censor­ship at all, since preventing someone from accessing the network does not in any way confis­cate those coins or make them unspend­able when service is restored.

Finally, Bitcoin’s mecha­nism that is intended to be used for payments, The Light­ning Network, is entirely encrypted and private and there is no way for any censorer to even detect its usage, let alone to prevent it.

Assess­ment: Censor­ship of Bitcoin does not appear to be feasible.

Total Collapse of the Internet:

In the event of a total collapse of the Internet,  the Bitcoin blockchain, which is the ledger of who owns what, would be unaffected.  The blockchain resides on tens of thousands of individual computers dispersed all over the world and run by anyone who wants to run a Bitcoin full node. Several of these are in under­ground nuclear and EMP proof bunkers.  Running a full node requires nobody’s permis­sion and only needs about 500GB of disk space and around $200 worth of computer equip­ment.  As long as one of these computers exists, your Bitcoin exists.  An internet outage will not make your Bitcoins disappear. 

Even if the Internet went down and stayed down there are contin­gen­cies that bitcoiners have planned for.  Like with the censor­ship example above, there are ways around not being able to access even the Internet itself.  It is possible to commu­ni­cate Bitcoin transactions:

Unlike a credit card trans­ac­tion there is nothing secret in a Bitcoin trans­ac­tion, any method that human beings can use to share infor­ma­tion can be used to share Bitcoin trans­ac­tions or network messages.  While the internet is by far the most efficient system of commu­ni­ca­tion for the Bitcoin network to use, it could continue on with reduced speed and function­ality on any commu­ni­ca­tions system known to man. 

Assess­ment: Even if the Internet did go down perma­nently (which would destroy much of modern civiliza­tion) there would be ways to route around this obstacle and keep Bitcoin opera­tional, since bitcoin relies only on the trans­mis­sion of text and we have been trans­mit­ting text for longer than the Internet has been around.

Summary

Bitcoin is designed for maximum surviv­ability, and so is the Internet. The Internet itself is extremely unlikely to go down perma­nently.  Bitcoin is largely unaffected by tempo­rary local outages of Internet service — with the only loss of service to those affected by outages being a tempo­rary inability to spend their bitcoin. 

Bitcoin cannot be censored because it relies only on simple text transfer of very small bursts of infor­ma­tion that can be easily concealed. Even in the event of a catastrophic and perma­nent shutdown of the Internet there would be ways to continue to operate the Bitcoin network using less efficient text trans­mis­sion technolo­gies, including things like handwritten messages on paper.

This blog offers thoughts and opinions on Bitcoin from the Swan Bitcoin team and friends. Swan Bitcoin is the easiest way to buy Bitcoin using your bank account automatically every week or month, starting with as little as $10. Sign up or learn more here.


Rigel Walshe

Rigel Walshe

Rigel Walshe is a software developer at Swan Bitcoin. He has a background in law enforcement and adult education. Rigel also holds the record for the worlds longest distance offline Bitcoin transaction (12.6km). Originally from New Zealand he now lives in Latin America.

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© 2021 Swan Bitcoin

Electric Solidus LLC
26565 Agoura Rd Ste 200
Calabasas, CA USA
hello@swanbitcoin.com
+1.218.379.7926

Swan Bitcoin does not provide any investment, financial, tax, legal or other professional advice. We recommend that you consult with financial and tax advisors to understand the risks and consequences of buying, selling and holding Bitcoin.